Letter from Jerusalem
David Remnick July 30, 2007
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- Audio: David Remnick on Avraham Burg and Israel.
The self-regard of Israelis is built, in no small part, around a sense of sang-froid, and yet few would deny that the past year was deeply unnerving. Last July, Israel launched an aerial attack on Lebanon designed to destroy the arsenal of the radical Islamist group Hezbollah, the Party of God, and force its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to return two kidnapped soldiers and end its cross-border rocket attacks. “If the soldiers are not returned,” Dan Halutz, the Israeli Army’s chief of staff, said at the time, “we will turn Lebanon’s clock back twenty years.” Israel bombed the runways of the Beirut airport, the Beirut-Damascus highway, and numerous towns, mainly in the south; Hezbollah, from a network of guerrilla installations and tunnel networks worthy of the Vietcong, launched some four thousand rockets, mainly Katyushas, at cities in northern Israel. Israel degraded Hezbollah’s military capabilities, at least temporarily, but there was no victory. Hezbollah survived and, in the eyes of the Islamic world, in doing so won; Nasrallah emerged as an iconic hero; and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, one of his sponsors, called yet again for the elimination of Israel from the map of the Middle East. Halutz, who had dumped all his stocks on the eve of the war, resigned, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, saw his approval rating fall to as low as two per cent.
More recently, Hezbollah’s ideological ally in Palestine, Hamas—the Islamic Resistance Movement—led a violent uprising in the Gaza Strip, overwhelming its secular rival, Fatah. Suddenly, Israel, backed by the United States, found itself propping up the Fatah leadership, in order not to lose the West Bank to Hamas as well. Not even the ceremonial office of the Israeli Presidency was immune from the year’s disasters: a few weeks ago, President Moshe Katsav agreed to plead guilty to multiple sexual offences and resign, lest he face trial for rape. Despite a resilient, even booming economy, peace and stability have rarely seemed so distant.
In this atmosphere of post-traumatic gloom, Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset, managed to inflame the Israeli public (left, right, and center) with little more than an interview in the liberal daily Ha’aretz, promoting his recent book, “Defeating Hitler.” Short of being Prime Minister, Burg could not be higher in the Zionist establishment. His father was a Cabinet minister for nearly four decades, serving under Prime Ministers from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Peres. In addition to a decade-long career in the Knesset, including four years as Speaker, Burg had also been leader of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel. And yet he did not obey the commands of pedigree. “Defeating Hitler” and an earlier book, “God Is Back,” are, in combination, a despairing look at the Israeli condition. Burg warns that an increasingly large and ardent sector of Israeli society disdains political democracy. He describes the country in its current state as Holocaust-obsessed, militaristic, xenophobic, and, like Germany in the nineteen-thirties, vulnerable to an extremist minority….”